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Caucasus: Armenia Sends Contradictory Signals On Use Of Its Airspace

Prague, 27 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The former Soviet republic of Armenia is sending contradictory signals about whether the United States has requested permission to use its airspace in the case it decides to launch attacks on Afghanistan.

President Robert Kocharian's chief spokesperson, Hasmik Petrosian, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service yesterday and today that Yerevan has answered positively to an overflight request made by Washington.

But yesterday, both Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian said the U.S. had made no such request.

Markarian told deputies last night that, should Washington ask permission to use Armenia's airspace, parliament will be informed.

In a later interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, Sarkisian confirmed the prime minister's statement. He also said Armenia would most likely agree to let U.S. warplanes use its airspace should Washington make such a request.

U.S. President George W. Bush's administration is drumming up international support for decisive action against terrorist organizations believed to be responsible for the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington. Saudi-born millionaire and Islamic militant Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan, is the prime suspect in the attacks.

The U.S. is seeking cooperation from the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and, to a lower extent, Turkmenistan in any possible retaliation against Afghanistan. All three countries border Afghanistan and could serve as convenient platforms for launching strikes or for sending small units specialized in intelligence operations into Afghanistan.

Turkmenistan has said that it will not allow the U.S. to use its territory to launch strikes against its southern neighbor.

Reports that U.S. military transport planes have already landed in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have not been confirmed and have been strongly denied by authorities in both countries. The Taliban recently claimed that they had shot down an unmanned U.S. spy plane, which the militia says came from Uzbekistan.

Both Tajikistan and Armenia are members of the Russian-led Collective Security Council, and any military participation by these countries in a possible U.S.-sponsored coalition against Afghanistan would most likely require the Kremlin's approval. Russia keeps military bases in both Armenia and Tajikistan, and has an estimated 20,000 soldiers stationed in Dushanbe and along the Tajik-Afghan border.

In a televised speech on 24 September, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would open its airspace to what he described as "humanitarian flights" in the case of U.S. strikes against Afghanistan.

Although Putin said Central Asian states are considering opening their airfields to allied planes, he made it clear that any such permission would not be granted without prior consultations with Moscow.

Top military officials from Russia and nine other CIS states met 26 September in Moscow to consider joint action against terrorism and discuss long-held plans to set up a joint rapid deployment force in Central Asia. Participants included representatives of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan and Ukraine.

Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan and Georgia are not members of the Collective Security Council.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has repeatedly hinted that his country will knock at NATO's door in 2005, and some Azerbaijani officials are also seeking membership in the Northern Atlantic Alliance for their country.

Permission to fly over Azerbaijan and Armenia would certainly be required should the U.S. need to use NATO member Turkey's Incirlik airbase, where 50 American aircraft are already stationed.

Located a short distance from Iraq and Syria, Incirlik has been used by U.S. and British aircraft to patrol the no-fly zone over northern Iraq and could serve as a supply base in a U.S. operation against Afghanistan.

Like most world leaders, Azerbaijan's president, Heydar Aliyev, has condemned the 11 September attacks and pledged his support for U.S. efforts to fight terrorism. Officials in Baku have said the U.S. has made no request to use Azerbaijan's airspace.

(Ruzanna Khachatrian from RFE/RL's Armenian Service contributed to this report.)